A sensitive concerto meets a wall of sound at the MSO

By - Oct 1st, 2011 01:00 pm
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Simon Trpčeski, pianist

Simon Trpčeski, pianist

Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, a standard among piano concertos, received a fresh and sensitive treatment Friday morning from Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski (pronounced Trrrp’CHESky with a trill) and Edo de Waart’s Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Trpčeski approached the concerto methodically, with clear, biting phrases in the right hand and flowing arpeggios in the left. He treated slow, quiet passages with clarity and light touch and matched the orchestra in fortissimo sections.

The first movement cadenza effectively demonstrated Trpčeski’s style: quiet and reverent, with less flash than many guest artists but more effort to bring the right mood to each phase.

Prayerful, the second movement opened with sparkling, gentle piano phrases, blossoming into a glorious hymn reminiscent of Sibelius sung by winds, then closed reverentially with piano and French horn sharing the theme.
The third movement represented a quick change of pace, but closed with the same broad hymn-like themes that mark the Scandinavian character of the work.

Following the concerto was Harmonielehre, by contemporary composer John Adams. Opening with a series of full-orchestra, full-volume blasts of sound, it’s not the usual taste of a Friday morning crowd. But the work won over this audience with the chromatic brilliance that unfolded.

Edo de Waart spoke briefly with the audience about the work, which he premiered in 1985 with the San Francisco Symphony. De Waart said it grew from a personal request he made of Adams for a work that did not require an array of unusual instruments, but that made full use of an orchestra — or at least “just a normal Mahler one.”

The work opened with a wall of sound that’s hard to fully appreciate without having been in the hall. The orchestra quickly quiets, moving to serial phrases reminiscent of Phillip Glass, but with patterns developing more quickly. Others of these quiet passages echo moods created by Shostakovitch.

Adams’ rhythms and motifs slowly accelerate, growing ever more insistent. Harmonies build, layer on layer, with blocks of instruments introduced one at a time, each with a dramatically different role and range, so harmonies remain distinct.  Strings shimmer or head into the stratosphere, trumpets and French horns introduce themes over layers of strings.  Percussion – especially the pitched instruments (four percussionists playing all manner of struck idiophones) – were often the top layer, distinct over even a fortissimo orchestra.

John Adam's vision that inspired Harmonielehre

John Adam’s vision that inspired Harmonielehre

This music is cinematic. Speaking of the work’s first movement, Adams drew inspiration from a vision of a large tanker rising from the waters of San Fransisco Bay and taking flight.

In the second, he creates an image of spiritual despair. Dark moods dominate. The bass section growls an introduction at their lowest register. As other sections enter, the music rises, but the tone does not. Despair is prominent. The development builds not just in volume, but in desperation. At its peak, the hall is overwhelmed acoustically. Ears ring, instruments screech and one full-volume scream fills the hall.

But the closing movement offers redemption. Light images of galactic-scale space fill the hall. Another dream, this time of Adams’ daughter whispering the secret of grace into the ear of a 13th-century mystic, provided the inspiration for the movement’s bright melodies.

Throughout, de Waart maintained full control of the complex piece. Harmonielehre would tempt many conductors to dance along with the changing tempos, to dramatically gesture to the various players as layers are built.  But de Waart conveyed the timing — which ebbed and flowed throughout the 40-minute work — and quietly signaled entrances — pointing to a section at just the right moment — with gestures often not noticed by the audience.

The program opened with an overture by Karl Nielsen — Maskarade.  The orchestra carefully balanced its energy, consistently building momentum until the climax five bright minutes later. This is cheerful, ensemble music tautly played by the orchestra.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, October 1st. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206. For further information, visit the MSO’s website.

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